BOOK OF THE WEEK
SUPER-INFINITY: THE TRANSFORMATIONS OF JOHN DONNE
by Katherine Rundell (Faber £16.99, 344pp)
Although I prefer Keats myself, Katherine Rundell is of the opinion that John Donne was “the finest love poet in the English language”.
He created the “most lavishly sexed poetry ever written in English”, which at least omits Welsh.
Somehow I can see what she means: all those Renaissance verses about wandering hands and dabbling fingers, mixing blood and soul, desire budding like spring grass or foaming like the flower.
Looking at Donne’s work, which I’ve done regularly since my A-Level days, is to imagine the busiest womanizer next to Casanova — one who also brags about his prowess. “Now you loved me for a whole day,/Tomorrow when you leave, what will you say?” What was he fishing for? A glowing review on Tripadvisor or Tinder?
Katherine Rundell’s new book claims that John Donne (pictured) has created the ‘most lavishly sexed poetry ever written in English’.
Sex with Donne really meant the earth was moving – all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. “O my America! he cried in ecstasy. “My new land!” This one is To His Mistress Going To Bed. In it, the poet commands his beloved to perform a striptease, take off her shoes, belt and cuirass, and squirm, for God’s sake, and unlace: ” Your dress is going, so beautiful condition reveals,” he gasps – presumably the two of them must still have the lights on.
After a bit of ogling at his “full nudity”, Donne rips off his own doublet and pipe – “I’m naked first!” he declares. You can guess the rest.
For Donne, love is golden sand, crystal streams, infection, fever, itching out of control.
Such images, says Rundell enthusiastically, “kick the metal off your knees.” Reading one of Donne’s stanzas, “all oxygen within five miles rushes in to greet you”. Silly hyperbole aside, it is surely more true that, despite everything, Donne’s main subject was not love but death.
Donne’s great phrase of apprehension, “never send to find out who the bell tolls for – it rings for you!”, was used in 1940 by Hemingway as the title of a novel about courage in the face of extinction .
There’s certainly enough material in Super-Infinite to argue that what filled Donne’s life was death rather than love.
The plague was everywhere, to begin with. Death rates in the 17th century were 60%. To put that into perspective, the coronavirus rate was only 3% recently.
In 1603 there were 22,819 plague deaths in ten weeks. The equivalent figure today would be 880,000 pandemic deaths in London alone.
SUPER- INFINITE: THE TRANSFORMATIONS OF JOHN DONNE by Katherine Rundell (Faber £16.99, 344pp)
If you got sick, the house was barricaded with you and your family inside. Victims endured back pain, stumbling and hard red swellings – the notorious buboes.
In 1593 Donne’s brother Henry died of the plague at the age of 19.
London itself was hardly a salubrious place, as sanitation was unknown. The rains brought corpses floating on the surface of the ground in the cemeteries. The city was covered in a veil of sulphurous smoke. The Thames stank. Rotten vegetables and human waste littered the streets.
It’s no wonder, then, that Donne was always on his sickbed. “He was shaken, again and again,” Rundell says, “by life-threatening illnesses, with dozens of bouts of fever, sore throat, vomiting.”
Donne also had problems with his teeth, which he treated by rubbing the gums with a “burnt rabbit’s head” powder.
Whether or not a person had the image of coarse health, there was in any event a “underground noise of dread” in Tudor and Stuart times, due to religious persecution. The Donnes were Catholic landowners, who lost their wealth during the Protestant era.
A great-uncle, Thomas Heywood, was arrested during an anti-Catholic raid in 1574 and executed. Another relative has been locked up in the Tower of London. A family friend, William Harrington, was captured, hanged, drawn and quartered in 1594.
The penalty for being a Catholic priest was always death, “which meant being stretched, hanged until almost dead, then having arms and legs severed from the body as the crowds looked on,” Donne among them. Rundell, perhaps out of disgust, omits the ritual gutting. .
The brutality of the world was therefore not hidden from Donne, or from anyone. He was born in 1572 (“unknown month”), but trying to write a full biography today is no better than an “educated guess”. As Rundell puts it, rather desperately, there are no diaries, no “logbooks or household accounts.”
Archives are non-existent. “Time and fire together have devastated so many newspapers that could have told us about Donne.” The Great Fire of London in 1666 burned down many documents, manuscripts and legal documents.
As Donne’s wife, Anne, was only 16, he was thrown into Fleet Prison, which was lined with lice. He remained there until the judges declared the bond “good and sufficient”, shortly after
What is known generally comes from the memoirs of Izaak Walton from 1670. Donne apparently did not go to school, but he enrolled in Oxford at the age of 12, where he studied Latin and Greek.
In 1591 he was at the Inns of Court, learning the law and enjoying “wild parties…with hoarse singing and drinking”. Although the impression given by the poetry is of Donne the libertine, Donne the rake, Donne a Renaissance Warren Beatty, whether Donne was a “conqueror of bands of women” is something “we can only guess”, Rundell said.
For some reason it reminds us of the horrors of venereal disease, which people tried to cure by eating chunks of mercury. We’re also told about basic birth control techniques, like “prophylactic penis baths with ginger and vinegar.”
Donne wanted to be a diplomat or courtier and was appointed secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Thomas Egerton.
Unfortunately, as there are “few clues left to his daily life”, Rundell completes things with a description of bear baiting. In 1601, “probably” at Savoy Chapel, Donne married Egerton’s niece, Anne More, who was “likely to have been fashionable”.
They had met in parks and at church, but because the bride’s father’s permission had not been asked and Anne was only 16, Donne was thrown into fleet prison. , which was lined with lice. He remained there until the judges declared the bail “good and sufficient” shortly thereafter.
Egerton, however, sacked Donne for his outrageous behaviour, and the poet ‘had no obvious employment during these years’ except when he spent eight weeks as MP for Taunton.
However, he had many children. Anne, the poor, died at the age of 33, in 1617, after having given birth 12 times. Six of the babies died – not that Donne mentioned it, so it’s Rundell who feels compelled to say how unpleasant whooping cough was.
In fact, Donne disliked family life and never “got much joy from his children.” Leaving his family in Mitcham, “to escape his offspring”, he settled in the Strand.
In 1615, he turned to the Anglican Church, an “opportunity”, especially since James I offered him a chaplaincy and accommodation in Sevenoaks. He was a popular preacher.
“He wept often in the pulpit, in joy and in pain, and his audience wept with him.”
If the plague had not continued to close the theaters, Donne’s vocation was surely to be an actor.
Because “people came in droves, often by the thousands”, the monarch in 1621 made Donne the dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Things weren’t as sepulchral as they were later. If the sermons went on too long, the congregation threw shoes or went to the bathroom on the pews. “The boys peed on the floor and used the slippery surface as a skating rink.”
The “profusely bearded” Donne wrote 9,100 lines of poetry and 160 sermons. He coined the words beauteousness, beholder, enripen, horridness and jig.
Beyond that, in this book at least, too much guesswork. Rundell always says that Donne “surely” must have done one thing or another.
‘He would have known that…’; ‘It is more than likely that…’.
Did Donne meet Shakespeare, as their dates overlapped and the authors both resided in London? “It’s terribly impossible to know.”
Believing “you were meant to meet death with a steering wheel,” Donne used to dress in his own shroud and pose for portraits. He died in 1631.
“I was unhappy if I couldn’t die,” he says happily – his last words.